Tuesday, January 25, 2011

REM: Colliding Into Nowhere?

REM will be releasing a new album in March, called Collide Into Now. A few of the tracks have leaked, and I think I've listened to three of them, once each. Nothing blows me away so far, but I've been a fan of REM for 25 years, so I feel I owe them my curiosity, at the very least. The problem is, deep down, I think the band I loved as "REM" ended in 1996, with the release of New Adventures In Hi-Fi. That was a great album, inspired in its creation and diverse in its sounds and experimentation. But drummer, songwriter, and future hay farmer Bill Berry quit after that album, and REM became something else. For the last decade or so, whenever my old friends release a new album, I wonder what happened and what the future will bring them. Because the Beatles were my first love, they (for better or worse) established the template in my mind for how a band should evolve, and they set the bar -- HIGH -- for any band's success. With that in mind, here's how I see the last two decades of REM:

Out of Time (1991) was their Revolver -- increased track space for Mike Mills (the "George" of the group), the apex of band harmony + mainstream success, creative and ground-breaking (for them) recording decisions. Automatic For The People (1992) was their Sgt. Pepper (complete pop culture dominance) but also their White Album (acoustic and organic), which found the band splintering, working separately, and starting to hate each other. Monster (1994) was, naturally, their Get Back project -- back to basics, rocking again, being a real BAND again, etc. -- but like Get Back, it backfired, and making the album almost broke them up. That makes New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996) their Abbey Road -- built up from the remnants of the previous project, and pretty much the culmination of everything we would now call "REM music." The band got along better, but as with the Beatles, it would be short-lived, with Berry leaving after years of reluctance to play the rock star and (more crucially) after nearly dying from a brain aneurysm.

So, to me, everything after Bill left has been the "solo years" of REM, with all the joys, disappointments and (eventually) nostalgic yearnings for days past that the phrase implies. Up (1998) was a rush of post-breakup adrenaline -- Buck, Mills and Stipe actually sounded EXCITED to be forced to flip the script and re-invent themselves. Even Berry ruefully noted that right after he left the band, they made their best album. Perhaps he was just being courteous towards his old bandmates (as far as we know, his departure was entirely amicable), and he can be forgiven for exaggerating slightly, but Up was a GREAT album -- it just didn't sound much like "REM music" to a lot of their fans. I've always wished that they had followed through with Michael Stipe's stated desire to re-name the band "Three-Legged Dog" after Berry left -- he may have been joking, but I think fans might have been more generous to the post-Berry albums if they didn't have the intimidating (and hard to live up to) label "R.E.M." on them.

Anyway, things fell apart fast after that. The album after that -- I honestly can't remember the title! ... the cover had a lot of yellow in it ... ah, yes, Reveal (2002) -- was hailed at first as a "return to form" and Automatic-like in its warmth and optimism, but I never bought the spin. Between Reveal and Around The Bend (sorry -- Around The SUN [2004]), I like maybe 6-8 songs, and LOVE maybe two or three. Accelerate sounds to me like REM trying to make the "REM music" that their remaining fans want -- and not making the music THEY want to make. Perhaps Collide Into Now -- GREAT title, btw -- will launch a new era of relevance for the band, or perhaps it will be the last gasp of a tired trio of millionaires. Either way, I'll be there to hear for myself -- and even if I feel in my heart they are "done," it will be with no animosity. They had a great run, and I feel fortunate to have shared most of it with them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Flashback: January 22, 2010

One year ago yesterday, Conan O'Brien walked away from The Tonight Show, the job every talk show host aspires to, and stepped into an unknown wilderness. He beseeched his fans not to give in to hate, not to feel sorry for him, and then he grew a beard and went on tour. On January 19th, a couple of days before his last Tonight show, after weeks of obsessing over the whole fiasco, and in response to a smattering of Leno Lovers who I'd been tangling with online, I unleashed the following (and this is the SHORT version):

In response Jay Leno's statement yesterday, and for those who may have been fooled by it, this is my rebuttal. It's long, but it covers the entire five year history of this disaster-in-the-making, touching on all of Jay's disingenuous comments and passive-aggressive attacks. He is NOT blameless in this; not acting can be just as destructive as acting. If you have the time to read it, I'd be grateful for any feedback. 

Chin Music: How Jay Leno Trashed His "Mr. Nice Guy" Image To Win Back The Tonight Show

I've been openly hostile towards Jay since this story erupted, so I'm not going to pretend to be unbiased. Long before there was a "Team Conan" there was a "Team Dave" and I was on it. I started watching Letterman when he had a morning show on NBC, I was a die-hard fan of Dave's "Late Night" show, and I was bitterly resentful that Leno got the "Tonight" job over Dave. I read Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift" a couple of years later, and my feelings of enmity towards Leno calcified as everything I suspected about him was confirmed. I thought he was a phony, I thought he was a backstabber, and I thought he stole something he may well have been suited for, but didn't deserve.

But just because I'm biased doesn't mean I want to be willfully unfair or inaccurate. I watched Dave's "Late Show" loyally, relished his early success, but reluctantly accepted Jay's gradual ascension as inevitable. Time (and ratings) proved that Jay arguably DID deserve Johnny Carson's chair, but he was never as clever or witty or creative as Dave -- even a watered-down, 11:30 Dave. He was a pretender to the throne, an antipope (Google it, fellow Catholics). But the public eventually forgot about how Johnny was shoved aside, or how Dave was screwed, or how Helen Kushnick terrorized Hollywood, and Jay's good name was fully restored. 

I never forgave him, though; I cheered when Conan was named as his replacement, was annoyed when Jay didn't agree to disappear triumphantly (as Carson did), but was relatively content to watch him flounder and become irrelevant at 10 pm. But as long as Leno was still on the air, I felt uneasy. I didn't trust the guy. I followed news about "The Jay Leno Show," but only to track the negative reviews and sagging ratings. I knew NBC was loyal to Jay and possibly regretting the O'Brien decision, and I knew that because it was cheap to produce, it WOULD meet low expectations and make the network plenty of money. So I was prepared to endure at least two more years of Jay "Big Jaw" Leno, but I never dreamed that Jay's failure would end up costing Conan HIS job. 

Nevertheless, here we are in 2010, and sometime in the next couple of months Jay will be back at 11:30, bobbing his head and smirking to Kevin Eubanks, somehow trying to convince America that he had nothing to do with all this ugliness, and he just does what he's told. Heck, he might even be the VICTIM in all this! Never Believe your Contract, folks! Yuk, yuk, yuk... But this time, unlike 1992, a whole LOT of people turned on him, quickly and viciously. Turns out I wasn't alone all these years, silently harboring ill-will towards the man who has now TWICE won late night's greatest crown over funnier, more talented men. (THREE times, if you count Carson.) 

How did we get here? Did Jay really set out to undermine Conan from the very beginning? Will he be able to shake the growing perception that he is a cold, calculating schemer who will do anything and bulldoze anyone to get what he wants? Or is there a way for Jay to end this madness, and become the nice guy he desperately wants us to believe he is?


It all began, fittingly, with a brilliant piece of riveting television. In September 2004, Jay Leno told his stunned (and disapproving) audience that he'd be stepping down in 2009 to hand over the reigns of television's most prestigious franchise to "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien. It was a stunning move. Fortunately, he had five years to prepare for it, as did Jay, who claimed to be eager for a peaceful transfer of power. "When I took over this show [in 1992], boy, there was a lot of animosity between me and Dave," he confessed, "and quite frankly, a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged, and I don't ever want to see anybody have to go through that again ... so right now, here it is: Conan, it's yours. See you in five years, buddy."

Leno was perfect; he was gracious, he waved off the boos of his audience, and he professed to be completely supportive of this move: "Conan is a gentleman, funny, the hottest late-night guy on television ... and I said 'You know something? I don't want Conan to go anywhere else'." This was Jay Leno, America's Everyman, talking of quitting while on top like Jerry Seinfeld, and how only the great Johnny Carson should host "Tonight" into his sixties. (Jay would be 59 in 2009.) He promised a great finish -- "that's twelve hundred shows, we're not going anywhere tomorrow!" -- he'd keep the show at number one, "and then in '09 I'll say 'Conan, take it over. It's yours'."

NBC must have been thrilled. The Carson-to-Leno transition was nasty and ugly, and it created something the network certainly hadn't wanted: a viable, long term rival for "The Tonight Show" in late night. For all the talk of how Leno kept his show number one for 15 years, there was one thing he HADN'T been able to do: kill off all his competitors. Johnny Carson's reign was littered with the carcasses of failed late night shows, from Joan Rivers to Pat Sajak to Alan Thicke and many others. Jay had buried a couple of lightweights (Arsenio and Chevy Chase), but Dave had flourished and established the first true alternative to "Tonight" at 11:30. I'm sure Jay took solace in being number one, but it's indisputable that under his stewardship late night went from a kingdom to a democracy, with CBS and ABC both having strong lineups following their local news. This would make the transition for Jay's successor treacherous -- regardless of who it was -- and NBC desperately needed it to go smoothly.

Three years passed without much notice, but as soon as the clock started ticking a little louder, a "Leno Problem" began to emerge. If NBC had expected Leno to tire during his victory lap, they were very wrong -- he liked being the King, and apparently now didn't want to give up the crown. As reported by Bill Carter in February 2008, Jay's mantra was "What I do is tell jokes at 11:30 at night." This was a hint of the passive-aggressive campaign Leno would wage for nearly two years. He would never say out loud that he wanted his job back -- that would mean he had it in for Conan -- but his seller's remorse was becoming apparent.

Potentially, this was big trouble for NBC. Leno was still powerful, and in 2009 he would be free to go anywhere (most likely ABC) and compete at 11:30 at full-strength. In trying to avoid the blunders of 1992, NBC may have created something WORSE, as an aggrieved and "victimized" Leno took his ratings prowess and all the public sympathy to another network. It was deja-vu all over again. Not wanting to lose Jay the way the lost Dave, the only solution was to somehow KEEP Leno at NBC, where he couldn't damage their late-night lineup. After rejecting a daily 8 pm show and an Ed Sullivan-like Sunday night time slot, Leno accepted the challenge of establishing a comedy hour on weeknights at 10:00.

In an interview with the New York Times in December 2008, Jay said all the right things ... almost. He talked about the deal being "mutual" with the network, but was careful to say that "ultimately, this was NBC's idea." He expressed his concern about providing a strong lead-in for the local news and the late night schedule, but he had no problem competing for guests that would otherwise have gone to "Tonight." No pressure, of course, but "I think we will have an advantage saying to press agents, 'It's prime time; reach a wider audience'." Hey, he and Conan are buddies, Jay said, but if "your friend is pitching, are you going to try to hit a home run? Yeah! It's what you do." This was the first real sign that Conan was in trouble.

Fast-forward to August 2009. Conan is making an unsteady transition at 11:30, losing regularly to David Letterman, and Jay Leno is poised to return to the NBC airwaves with "The Jay Leno Show." At a press conference to unveil his show, he brushes off any responsibility to save the network in a statement that should have given NBC and Conan's camp chills: "They're in fourth place. It's not my fault. I was happy where I was." Any pretense that he had willingly and graciously turned over "The Tonight Show" is now gone. Still, Nice Guy Jay professes sympathy for his successor's struggles: "Conan is going through exactly the same thing I went through. It's a rite of passage when you take over the 'Tonight Show'." 


Given their shared experiences, one would think that Jay would never consider humiliating O'Brien by grabbing his old show back, the way Letterman almost did in 1993. He continued to say the "right" things in his main quotes, but he also dropped little asides that hinted at darker and less generous feelings and motives. But Jay was bulletproof now, so these passive-aggressive nuggets were absorbed by his good-guy image and nobody made much of them. In his most revealing comments yet, Leno gave a lengthy interview in November 2009 to Broadcasting & Cable. Nice Guy Jay said he was holding up fine, he felt bad for Dave, and that it was unfair to judge Conan this early -- but, oh, by the way, I'd take 11:30 back if they offered it to me, and I'm not going away voluntarily.

Throughout the interview with Ben Grossman, Jay portrays himself as a helpless observer in all this. "I get it, I understand how it works. I really don't take anything too personally." In other words, nothing that happens or will happen is HIS fault; he's at the mercy of other forces. Asked if he's mad about the criticism he says, "I could have said no. But I like being on TV and writing jokes." But pressed if he regretted the prime-time switch, he admits, "Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure. I would have preferred that." But he denied any ambitions for Conan's job, likening his relationship with NBC to a whipped marriage; when asked if he'd be "thrilled" to be put back at 11:35, he said, "Oh, I don't know. Are you married? Whatever you want, honey."

When Grossman expresses disbelief at Leno's blasé response, Leno finally admits what was obvious long ago -- he hated leaving "Tonight" and wants it back -- but he'd NEVER ask for it; they'd have to give it to him: "If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to. [...] But it's not my decision to make; it's really not."

Just in case it might look like he was openly campaigning for his old job, Leno again expressed support for Conan, saying he was "doing fine" and that it was "a little too early to tell" if he was going to succeed at 11:30. But he also reasserted that he had no problem taking a gig that another comic had walked away from because he was being mistreated. "I see other comics say, 'F*** that, I'm not going back to that club, they treated me...' [And I say], 'Great, I got that one.' That's how you do it."

On the other hand, if he were FIRED, he'd leave with no regrets. "I've never walked away from anything in my life.... This is what I do. You keep plowing ahead. If someone wants to take you out, I'm out." This was a sentiment Leno had expressed a year earlier, when explaining why he hadn't fought to keep the "Tonight" job in the first place. "I've never been one of those guys, when the girl says 'I don't think we should see each other anymore,' I go, 'Why? What can I do?' No, I'm [like] 'O.K., babe, I'm gone'." More claims of "whatever you want, honey" ... but if it really came down to that, if NBC really was ever poised to fire him, would Jay hop on one of his vintage motorcycles and ride off into the sunset?


Meanwhile, at Camp Coco, things weren't going smoothly. "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" started off with a bang in June, and received generally favorable reviews, but he quickly slipped into third place as David Letterman and "Nightline" siphoned off many of the older viewers who used to watch Jay's show. Conan's ratings with the younger 18-49 demographic improved, but his overall ratings dropped, settling at about half of what Jay had been pulling in at 11:30. But outwardly there were no signs of concern; after all, it had taken Jay two years to beat Letterman head-to-head, and Conan's "Late Night" stint was widely seen as a disaster until he got his footing and found his comfort zone. And besides, there was NO WAY the network would ever fire the host of "The Tonight Show" just months into his tenure, right?

Actually, it did almost happen once before -- in 1992, to Jay Leno. When the decision to cut Letterman loose blew up in their faces, the brain trust at NBC started frantically courting him, just as he was about to sign with CBS. After several weeks of rumors and secret meetings, and stuck in the exact position that O'Brien is in right now, Leno lashed out at the double-dealing, telling the New York Times: "NBC is like a guy with two girlfriends who doesn't know which one he's going to marry [...] and the longer you wait, the madder they both get." Clearly, he felt it was wrong to fire the new "Tonight" host just because NBC wanted to keep another late-night star around: "This is a terrible position NBC is in. But fragging your own soldier doesn't make any sense to me."

It would be fair to ask how Conan O'Brien got HIMSELF into this situation. If Conan was beating Dave, or at least holding his own, NBC probably would have had to cancel "The Jay Leno Show" and fire its host. But Conan was losing to Dave, and losing badly, by margins unseen since the earliest days of the rivalry. Surely this was Conan's own fault, right? NBC genius Dick Ebersol took it upon himself to call Conan's show an "astonishing failure" and to say he was "gutless" for fighting back in his monologues. But how could he have been expected to succeed if he was forced to battle the ghost of the old "Tonight Show"?

NBC had arguably done the smart thing by planning to replace a popular older guy with a popular younger guy. Even if Dave enjoyed a few years at number one, he would eventually retire; Conan could easily have rode it out and then enjoyed a decade or more on top of the heap. It's the see-saw of life. Meanwhile, it was simply unfair for NBC to expect O'Brien's "Tonight Show" to maintain a 4.0 or better as long as Jay Leno was on the air at 10:00. Late night ratings are governed by the Law of Diminishing Returns; it's inevitable that each succeeding late night show will draw lower ratings than the one before it. Conan had already increased his "Late Night" audience by 25% just by virtue of being on an hour earlier, but he hit a wall because there was another "Tonight Show" airing every night at 10:00. Did America want to watch "Tonight" twice a day? Of course not -- so Jay's fans watched his version, and Conan's fans watched HIS version. O'Brien would NEVER draw 5 million viewers as long as Jay was pulling the same numbers at 10pm; therefore, Conan would never have a fair evaluation until Jay was off the air and he had the FIRST talk show each night on NBC.


Now it seems we'll never know what Conan would have done with "Tonight." NBC's affiliates were in full revolt after Christmas over Leno's prime time ratings, and they were going to bail on him, despite Jeff Zucker's contention that it would take a full year to see how Jay's 10:00 show was doing. On January 5th it was reported that NBC was doubling its order of series pilots for 2010; two days later, they were forced to awkwardly deny that they were cancelling "The Jay Leno Show." That same day, however, rumors started to fly that Leno was going back to 11:35 for a half-hour show, and NBC's flagship late-night program, "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" was being unceremoniously bumped to 12:05. I was reluctantly OK with this at first -- ANYTHING to keep Jay from getting "Tonight" back -- until I started thinking about the Law of Diminishing Returns. Again, Conan was being put in a position where it would be impossible for him to succeed as long as Leno was his lead-in.

Leno has been publicly silent throughout all this, but he let his monologue jokes speak for him. When the cancellation rumors first broke out, he quipped, "I don't think there is any truth to the rumors. See, it's always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you're in first place." Once again, he refers to the transition to Conan -- which he supposedly fully supported -- as being "cancelled"; he also seemed to forget that Johnny Carson was "number one" when HE was "cancelled" in 1992. The next day he joked that "NBC is working on a solution they say in which all parties would be screwed equally" -- again, disingenous, because NBC was treating the entire mess as a "How can we save Jay?" mission. Still, Leno tried to distance himself from what was happening: "My people are upset. Conan's people are upset. Hey, NBC said they wanted drama at 10:00 -- now they've got it!" Ha, ha, but NBC didn't WANT "drama" at 10:00 -- they wanted Jay's comedy. And now that he failed to deliver, it was O'Brien who was being shoved out the door.

Meanwhile, the rest of the late night world pounced, and when the stuff hit the fan, it splattered all over Leno. Letterman gleefully introduced fake promos for "Law & Order: Leno Victims Unit"; Jimmy Kimmel did a brutal, episode-long impression of Jay and his show -- and then two days later eviscerated him to his face (via satellite), saying "Listen, Jay, Conan and I have children. All you have is cars. We have lives to lead here. You have $800 million. For God's sake, leave our shows alone!" Patton Oswalt compared Jay to Nixon, and Rosie O'Donnell said he should retire. "Team Conan" support groups sprang up around the internet, and Conan's ratings shot up. Jay's response to all this? "You're welcome!" Another strangely tone-deaf note, as he appeared to kick the guy he was replacing on his way out the door.

For his part, O'Brien made brilliant (and pointed) comedy out of all this, telling America's children, for example, that his experiences have taught him that "you can do anything you want in life -- unless Jay Leno wants to do it too." He joked that after leaving NBC he was going to work in a more honorable industry -- like hardcore porn. "In the movie I'd be having sex with a beautiful woman and just as we're about to climax, I get replaced by Jay Leno." In between the jabs at Leno and NBC, though, Conan's humor was mostly self-lacerating, as he joked about his availability for kids' parties and put his "Tonight Show" up for sale on Craigslist. He started showing "Classic Tonight Show Moments" as if he was in the home stretch of a 20-year run. It was hilariously tragic comedy.

On January 12, in the middle of the firestorm, Conan released an extraordinary letter addressed to the "People of Earth," declaring that he would not follow Jay Leno and move "Tonight" to 12:05. Written by O'Brien alone, and released against the wishes of his managers, it was a brilliant P.R. move even if it wasn't a great tactical move, and it pushed the saga into Biblical territory. NBC's late night battle was now the "King Solomon and the Baby" story (1 Kings 3:16-28), with "Tonight" as the baby, and Jay and Conan as the two mothers. The false mother wants to divide the baby in half, whereas the true mother would rather give it up than see it killed. Unfortunately, NBC executives are playing the "Wise King Solomon" role in this tale, and they are eager to give the baby to Mama Jay.

So it all comes down to Jay Leno. I don't believe he's an evil, curly-mustachio'd cartoon villain who set out to destroy Conan O'Brien. But he willingly gave up "The Tonight Show" and now wants it back -- it's really as simple as that. His supporters can complain that he hasn't done anything but follow NBC's orders, but this isn't about Jay's ACTIONS, it's about his INACTION. He has stood by and let this happen to Conan -- the same thing that almost happened to HIM in 1993 -- and he's done nothing. All Jay has to say is "I'm not taking Conan's job away from him" and the whole thing ends. The guy who said "fragging your own soldier" wasn't cool is now watching silently as NBC pulls the trigger on a fellow "soldier." He's standing in the gallery at a minute to midnight at a TV execution, and all he as to say is "Stop!" and it won't happen. But Jay is silent -- whipped, he'd like you to think. Whatever you want, honey.

There's a mild "backlash to the backlash" brewing, and of course Jay will encourage it. He joked late last week that he thought the new show "Human Target" as about him, and he said that if Sarah Palin doesn't work out as a Fox contributor, "they'll just blame Leno." Again, you have to read between the lines with Jay because he's so passive-aggressive -- but the implication of that joke is that Conan is the one who "didn't work out" and it's not HIS fault that he's getting his old job and time slot back. This is from a guy who was once in the SAME POSITION Conan is in now, and who swore that "I don't ever want to see anybody have to go through that again."

His boosters say Jay is a "great guy" and it's absurd to expect him to sacrifice his own interests for someone else's. But David Letterman was once in this position: He could have grabbed the "Tonight Show" from Jay in an ugly and humiliating manner -- but he didn't. Conan O'Brien could have held onto "Tonight" out of sheer spite and watched it circle the drain at 12:05 -- but he didn't. Both men gave up the greatest job in late night because it was the WRONG way to get it (or keep it). It IS possible to do the "right thing" here -- but Jay Leno is the only one left who can do it. NBC certainly won't do it -- they only care about the ratings the first week after the Olympics, and they will sell out the future of late night to get good results NOW. Conan made a principled and heart-wrenching decision; so he is now powerless. Only Jay can make this end right. Only Jay can restore his "Mr. Nice Guy" image. Only Jay can act in the best long-term interests of NBC and "The Tonight Show." Only Jay can end up coming out of all this smelling like a rose. All he has to do is say "No."

Will he? Probably not, but it would make one hell of a "Headline."


Well, we all know how THAT ended up. Conan ended his run on The Tonight Show with humor (the ".6 Anniversary Special" highlight clips), bathos (trying to sell the parts of the set on Craigslist), and remarkable grace (his send-off speech at the end of the last show was truly amazing). He's on TBS now, for better or worse, and he will need to sink or swim on his own. While I'd love to be able to crow about him beating Leno week after week, and TBS' PR spin about how DVR numbers actually put Conan AHEAD of Leno offers some comfort, the truth is Conesy needs to make this work, and it's just harder on basic cable than it is on a network. My rage towards Jay Leno has burned down to glowing orange embers -- no longer a blaze, but these embers will NEVER die out.

Eternal Embers aside, I'm kinda over the whole thing, honestly. I watch Conan every night, but I'm frequently reminded that late night talk shows are like daily newspapers, not favorite novels. Sometimes the monologue is great, sometimes it's flat. Sometimes the guests are locked in with Conan and hilarity ensues, and sometimes they're just there to shill or they have nothing interesting to offer. We don't watch these shows because we expect our minds to be blown every night -- we watch because we have a relationship with the host. Conan's fans have what they want, Jay's fans have what THEY want, and so on. Oh, I'll still root for Jay to fail someday, but he's like the Terminator -- he'll never stop. 

So, as it was in about 1996, the Late Night Wars have slowed down to a cold war. Dave is getting older (and it's showing), Jay is down almost 50% from where he was a couple of years ago, and the late night scene is fractured like never before, with Stewart, Colbert, Adult Swim and Conan all grabbing a chunk. Things could be a lot different a few years from now, as Dave edges towards retirement, and Comcast petitions the government for a one-time-only permission slip for human cloning, in the hopes that Jay Leno can host The Tonight Show for at least 50 more years. I'll be watching Conan for as long as he lasts on TBS, and DVR-ing Dave or Kimmel if they have a good guest on. Life goes on.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flashback: October 2004

I just went back into the "archives" to combine several old postings from 2004 for a new one on a music board I frequent. As I use this blog to preserve my precious thoughts so that future generations of humans (or aliens) can bask in my wisdom, I will occasionally be posting these "Flashbacks" from the days of yore. This one concerns one of my favorite subjects, The Beatles, and one of the most hated villains in all of Pepperland -- the Capitol Records A&R man Dave Dexter, Jr., who was in charge of all their U.S. albums and singles in 1964 and 1965. He's hated for adding unnecessary reverb to their songs and for chopping up their near-flawless British LPs to multiply them, loaves-and-fishes-like, for the American consumer. I think the guy was probably a cranky old cuss who didn't like this newfangled rock music, but I also think he helped make the Fab Four the biggest thing since Elvis' underpants. I don't know what that means, but I like the sound of it. Read on...

In Defense of Dave Dexter Jr.

I know bashing Dave Dexter Jr. is like a recreational sport for Beatles' fans, but I gotta say, I think he gets a bit of a bad rap. IMO, his "crimes" are only criminal in hindsight; at the time, he was just a guy with a job to do, and his job was to move units, not to sabotage the sacred perfection of the Fab Four. He wasn't a mustachio'ed evildoer adjusting his monacle and cackling "Mwuuhahahahaha!!!" as he tied poor defenseless Beatles records to the railroad tracks! He was a mid-1960s Capitol employee who was given the task of making a British rock group (an oxymoron to many at the time) appealing to the US masses -- masses of TEENAGERS, mind you, not audiophiles, not music professors, not GROWN-UPS. In short, he was not a bad man who was worthy of the hatred that gets spewed on him; he was a guy doing his job who made choices that history has judged poorly.

Was he an older guy who didn't "get" the Beatles? I guess. Did he mess with the sound? Yeah, yeah, yeah. But people act like he killed every track he touched, and it simply isn't true. Granted, "I Feel Fine" and "She's A Woman" are ghastly, but y'know what -- those are the WORST examples among dozens that are more or less harmless. And actually, the MONO Dexterizations of those two tracks, found on the 45, sound thick and exciting -- and those reflect Dexter's true intent for them, before they were subjected to duophonic "stereo" and MORE reverb on the LP. A Beatles fan one complained that he knew within "5 seconds" of hearing the UK "I Feel Fine" that he'd been "screwed for years." My experience was different: When I first heard the UK "She's A Woman" I thought, "This doesn't even sound like a finished recording!" I've since learned better, but after years and years of the US mixes, my initial reaction was that the UK mixes were wrong, and I'm sure many many less obsessive US fans felt the same way when they innocently bought their first Beatles CDs. When I was a tot in the late 1970s (sorry, but I can't help not being alive in 1965) listening to my first Beatles records on my sky-blue Fisher-Price record player -- well, that reverb sounded pretty sweet to me.

As the Capitol Albums CDs have reminded us, many of the more subtle Dexterizations did what I imagine he wanted them to do -- add a little "punch" and fatten up the sound of this odd British rock group that his bosses shoved on him after he had rejected them three times. We forget that the phrase "British rock group" was almost laughable in 1963; Dexter was probably convinced he had a turkey on his hands. Once he was proved wrong, his "velvet touch" got a lot lighter, to my ears (with the exception of the single mentioned above). After the 1964 onslaught, there is less rechanneling, more true stereo, and less superfluous reverb. By 1965, aside from the chopping up of the "real" albums -- which is offensive now, but a common practice back then -- the MUSIC sounded mostly the same on both sides of the pond.

As for the "butchering" of the Beatles' early albums by Capitol, it's time to give it a rest. Hey, when Meet The Beatles was being assembled, who knew there would BE a Second Album? Once Meet The Beatles sold in record numbers and Beatlemania swept the nation, the bean-counters started doing what they do, and some guy probably stood up at a meeting, cleared his throat, loosened his tie, and said with a glimmer in his eye, "If we cut a track from the next album, it will still sell X million copies, and we'll save $XX,000 in royalties." Then some guy from marketing, who probably wasn't going to say anything, blurted out, "If they send us 2 albums and 3 singles a year, we can turn that into THREE albums and as many singles as we want!" The "Hurrah!"s were heard all over Capitol Tower, and they all went out for a 3-martini lunch. While Dexter's nimble knob-twiddling seems regrettable NOW, it's hard to argue with the track listings of the above-mentioned LPs or the U.S. Rubber Soul -- or the sales results. (The last one was particularly brilliant and well-timed, as it capitalized on the "folk-rock" craze and inspired Brian Wilson to write Pet Sounds.)

I say (or think) the same thing every time a Beatles fan spews righteous anger towards Capitol and Dave Dexter, Jr.: I don't think the Fab Four tore up any of Capitol's checks when Beatles For Sale sold 3 million in the UK while Beatles '65 and Beatles VI (the two U.S. albums it spawned) sold 3 million EACH here in the States. We reflexively call it greed, but some would call it prudent budgeting and marketing. The Beatles were hula hoops to Capitol -- Beanie Babies, Tickle-Me Elmos, Cabbage Patch Kids -- and they wanted to maximize profits before all those dumb kids moved on to the next group. You can rip them for not respecting their artistic merit until Sgt. Pepper (which admittedly was one altered classic too late), but in 1964 the Beatles were just a product to be exploited. Were U.S. fans screwed? I don't know -- 2 bucks for an 11-track, 28 minute album vs. 2 bucks for a 12-track, 31 minute album? Not THAT big a deal -- plus we also got single and EP tracks in convenient LP form, exclusive tracks ("Bad Boy") and songs still unreleased in Britain (the Revolver songs on Yesterday & Today). Sure, the duophonic mixes were bad -- but again, this was CANDY for CHILDREN: sweet, cheap and disposable.

Dave Dexter, Jr. didn't know he was supposed to be preserving "art" ... you know what he was? He was the guy in the snack booth at the schoolyard carnival. He took 2 cents worth of sugar, whipped it into cotton candy, and sold it to kids for 2 bucks. And he sold a TON of cotton candy -- more than any other cotton candy salesman in the history of carnivals. He did his job as he knew it. It was only later that WE realized that the original "sugar" was precious. Sometimes, I think it's possible to love the Beatles TOO much. We want to put them in a glass case like a $300 mint mono UK Revolver and bow down in awe of them. But once upon a time they were just FUN and nothing more. Paul loves to tell the story of how when things got tense with John, he would pull his glasses down his nose, peer over them and say "It's just me, you know."

I miss a bit of that every once in a while.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Conan's back! A review of the first two months

Conan O'Brien is back on the air tonight after a two-week holiday. Hooray! Two weeks seemed like a long time, and of course that goddamned workaholic Leno was back at work on January 3rd, which means Conan's 18-49 number will be even lower than the 0.4 he got the week after Christmas. They need to keep "Team Coco" interested and watching every night at 11, and not just checking out the clips on the website, so hopefully Conan and his peeps used the break partly to review the first two months, tweak some stuff, and figure out how they're going to stay afloat on TBS.

Still emotionally scarred by his swift dethroning at the Tonight Show, I DVR'ed all of the first 28 episodes of Conan and have burned them on DVDs. Why? Because I'm paranoid that tragedy will strike again, and I deeply regret not at least having his first few weeks of Tonight Shows on DVD, knowing full well that NBC will spend the next millenium pretending they never happened. But now Conan is coming back for his second batch of new shows, and I wonder, "Am I really going to keep archiving this show?" I don't think so, but I still have them set to stay on my DVR "until I erase."

Anyhoo, with Coco already nearly halfway into his first show of 2011 (it's 11:20 pm as I write this), I wanted to briefly look back and think about what's working, what isn't, and what the future holds for my favorite deposed Tonight Show host. Way back on November 8th, 2010, Conan returned from the wilderness, and this is what I wrote the next day:

Back in January [2010], my "advice" to Conan was to take any offer from NBC that would allow him to go back on the air IMMEDIATELY, and then start the show in an empty warehouse, with a single camera, a desk from Staples, and two folding chairs -- the idea being that the show would be built around him and people would tune in to see how it grew from night to night. Despite opting for a completed set and professional crew, I think last night's debut had that kind of vibe: We're doing something like the old Late Night show, but in a new place with new people. There's no pressure on us, so we're going to have fun and see where this goes.

As for Conan himself, he was buzzing with nervous energy -- even more than usual. I'm sure with 10 months of pent-up hosting in him, he was eager to just get the first show over with so he can settle down and do what he does best. He was definitely jittery, lurching into the audience one too many times, searching for the right quips at the desk, but I thought he was fine. He's Conan -- if you like the guy you know what he's going to be. The cold opening was brilliant -- hilarious but also veering close to pathos, lest we forget that Conan is a real person who was deeply wounded by what happened earlier this year. It's interesting that both his Late Night debut and this one opened with taped segments that had Conan contemplating suicide -- I never realized Conan had such a "dark" side until I started reading the new Bill Carter book. We all know what he did on Late Night; now, back in a similar setting on TBS, with a similar budget and low expectations, I'm sure he'll grow this into a solid, fun, surprising show.

By his third show of the first week, I was already feeling much better, writing on 11/11:

The guests were perfect, and should be the "template" for his new show: a pretty big star who gets Conan's sense of humor and plays off him well; a quirkier, more oddball guest who Conan can just sit back and let roam wild; and a current, borderline-fringe musical guest who bring their fans to the party. Conan seems more comfortable, and with Andy back on the couch where he belongs it's almost like he's the "first guest" every night, which is fine by me. Actually, now that I think about it, and as I'm reading the Carter book, bringing Andy back to the "Ed" spot may be Conan's most lasting homage to Johnny; he always resisted making Andy into his "McMahon" because at the time it seemed corny and cliche, but now he's the only host left with a sidekick and it's retro-cool.

By November 11th, I had seen enough to have a grasp on how his show was doing:

Also, Conan's now-nightly hug with an audience member is a sign of him doing something else he resisted doing on Tonight (much to NBC's annoyance) -- interacting with the audience more. Bill Carter's War For Late Night book has been a real eye-opener about how early the seeds of discontent with Conan were planted in some corners of the Peacock network. Ironically, now that he's lost the only job he ever really wanted, Conan seems more willing to do some of the things that might have helped him KEEP that job [I was referring to the Chevy Cruze giveaway and on-air hawking]. We'll see HOW willing he is the next time some celebrity scandal erupts. (He refused to book Sarah Palin in the wake of her dust-up with Letterman over his monologue jokes. It was probably the moment when Jeff Zucker started thinking of him as a problem and not the solution.)

All in all, Conan is settling into his new show nicely, if slowly. He's clearly not looking to re-revolutionize the format -- if anything, he seems determined to be the last traditional late night talk show standing. He's been funny, the guests have been good, and nothing has flopped (IMO). But I'm waiting for some truly inspired bit of zaniness to become the Next Great Conan Bit -- and he needs more than one. He gets points for not trying to rehash the past, but he doesn't have anything yet to replace his SAT metaphors, state quarters, "If They Mated", Twitter Tracker or the good old desk drives in the country. The "Local News Wrap Up" was funny, but it's no "In The Year 2000."

Most importantly, perhaps, Conan seems to have moved beyond the NBC fiasco, as I was sure he would. People were already moaning after the FIRST EPISODE -- including, amazingly, some professional TV critics -- that the NBC jokes were "tired" and "over-done"; how this could be true after one episode is beyond me. He scarcely mentions it anymore, although his core audience probably wouldn't mind if he hammered away at it every day. (A passing reference to "my sojourn in the wilderness" drew a sympathetic "Awww" from the crowd last night.) He needs to find a way to make this new show his own, and not just The Tonight Show In Exile. I'm just glad to have the guy back on TV every night, so I'm willing to watch the evolution one show at a time.

So here we are, two months later. Late night is a marathon, not a sprint, so of course it's silly to judge a talk show on an obsessive night-by-night basis. Twenty-eight shows is just a drop in the bucket, hopefully a tiny fraction of the sheer tonnage of comedy Conan will deliver on TBS. When you consider that his Late Night stint got off to an incredibly rocky start in 1993 -- he was working on 13-week renewals for awhile -- he has stabilized his TBS show very quickly. He's become a better, more attentive, less jittery interviewer, and his monologue segment has become an early highlight. The warmth of his connection with the crowds, who show up in costume with props and signs to show their love, is genuinely moving in the insincere world of late night chat -- it would be almost a satire of Jay Leno's phony glad-handing at the opening of his show if it weren't so real and heart-felt.

Indeed, Conan has wisely held onto probably his greatest asset -- his fans, and their mutual affection for each other. He regularly shows off stuff his fans have sent him, and fan art has been turned into merchandise and his between-commercial title cards. I hope he continues to interact with the in-studio audience; it gives every show a slight devil-may-care, anything-could-happen vibe right off the top -- something only Craig Ferguson is pulling off in his monologue these days. And I hope Conan continues to pantomime the punchlines of his jokes -- I know he's always done this to some extent, but he seems to be doing it ALL THE TIME now, but it just keeps getting funnier. His Justin Bieber impression is as hilarious as it is simple.

The comedy bits are getting there. It's rough having to toss aside classic routines like the desk drive, "In The Year 2000/3000" and his stable of zany characters (Pimpbot 5000 being the most sorely missed, personally) and start completely fresh. It's not unlike Paul McCartney refusing to write a "Beatle-sounding" song for the first several years after the breakup -- Conan is re-creating a schtick that took 17 years to hone to silly perfection. I love his "video blog" segments -- he's only done two, but they are awesome and should be recurring. Andy's fake-newsman bit is as funny as it is low-rent, and that should also be a weekly event. The taped bits outside the studio have been very good, but I'd like to see Conan interacting more with "reg'ler folk" and not just TBS employees and people on the Warner lot. Just the other day I caught the bit from Tonight where he went yard-sale hopping with Slash, and it was classic.

He's getting there, but as with any start-up talk show, the key word is "patience." I love the opening theme and the graphics over the credits, which you have to watch every night for slight gags (a la The Simpsons), I love the set, I love the interaction with Andy, and they've had some great musical guests and funny comedians. It's a loose vibe, exemplified by the truly bizzare acid-trip Christmas decorations he sported for the final two weeks of 2010. And just as the year was winding down, we got a glimpse of possibly the first CLASSIC bit from the Conan show: Minty, the Candy Cane Who Fell On The Ground. With his old-timey theme song (which Conan was obsessed with), and the gross-but-somehow-adorable costume, Minty was the first breakout star of Conan's new show. As they get their legs underneath themselves, I'm sure there will be more where Minty came from.

And now it is 11:58 pm, and I need to go get me some Conan! Welcome back, Coco!

Friday, January 7, 2011

January 7th ... A day that will live in infamy...

Today is the one-year anniversary of the shit hitting the fan in the great NBC Late Night Fiasco of 2010. After weeks of behind-the-scenes fretting and panic, TMZ leaked the news that the "Teflon Don" of Late Night, Jay Friggin' Leno, would fail his way out of prime time and right back to his precious Tonight Show desk, in an article alarmingly titled "NBC Shakeup -- Jay Leno Comes Out On Top."

As a Conan O'Brien fan, and a long-time Leno-hater (thanks to his 1992 shenanigans), this caught me by surprise. I was anticipating the cancellation of the putrid Jay Leno Show with unashamed glee, but I never thought his utter failure would end up getting Conan shoved aside. I should have known better -- but that's a subject I can (and will) go on about at length another time. For now, I thought it would be a nice way to commemorate this dark day by listing my favorite life-long grudges. I'm a pretty easy-going guy, but when something (or someone) gets in my craw, it often stays there forever -- and not only because I have no idea where my "craw" is. Here are just a few of the topics I will probably spout off about at some point:

The New York Yankees:
I was a loyal fan to this team throughout my entire childhood, starting in about 1976 and continuing through the dark years of the 1980s and into the pitch-black years of the early 1990s. In 1995, after several years of hard work and new attitudes from the top down (requiring one George Steinbrenner to be banned from baseball for two of them), they finally clawed their way back to respectability ... only to have a major cause of that renaissance, manager Buck Showalter, fired for losing in the playoffs. Something snapped in my brain that day, and it never unsnapped, making me the only Yankee fan not to enjoy the Joe Torre Dynasty that reigned over the next decade.

Owen Gleiberman:
Inexplicably employed by Entertainment Weekly, an otherwise stellar publication, Mr. Gleiberman gave an "F" to the excellent Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Now, I'm not saying that O Brother is one of the greatest movies ever, but if nothing else it had outstanding cinematography and Oscar- and Grammy-winning music -- these things alone should have overridden Gleiberman's general disdain for the Coen Brothers and earned the movie a passing grade. Since then (going on a decade now), I've found it impossible to trust his judgement as a film critic, and I will never forgive him unless he makes a full confession. Among the hundreds of movies he has deemed better than O Brother are the cinematic classics Tomcats (earning a B-) and the Paris Hilton showcase, The Hottie And The Nottie (eking out a D+). Basically, Gleiberman put O Brother -- a highly literate slapstick irono-com with an outstanding cast -- on the same level as Freddy Got Fingered. It was a review so hateful, it was my duty to hate its author back.

George Lucas:
Do I really need to explain this one? Let's leave it for another day.

Jay Leno:
I'll probably be preoccupied with this one for the rest of the month, as we count off the "anniversaries" in January leading up to the 22nd, when Conan classily hosted his last Tonight Show. Hell, I've been obsessed with this whole topic for a solid year now, and my anger hasn't really dissipated any, so you can be sure I will be mentioning this again soon.

There are others, I'm sure, but these are the ones that spring to mind -- my "Thousand Year Wars." I'm playing it for laughs, but they've affected my life, and not necessarily in good ways. Since I can't afford a therapist, I will share my sickness with you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

RISK: A playlist for world domination

Note: One of the things I will subject you to from time to time is the tracklisting and/or cover art of a favorite compilation CD I've made. I was an incurable mixtaper in the 1980s, and that obsession only swelled with the introduction of recordable CDs. Nowadays, my utter lack of free time limits my hobby, which makes the ones I do finish that much more special to me. You've been warned!

Cover art and iTunes icon for my latest masterpiece.

Every New Year's weekend for the past several years -- the actual number is in dispute, but it's been more than five -- my sister hosts a "New Year's RISK" game day. We'd played RISK many times for many years before that, but as we got older and had kids, it became slightly harder to start a game on a Friday or Saturday night and not finish until three in the morning. So we chose New Year's because (a) it's the slowest holiday, with no required traveling and visiting; (b) there were no school or sports activities during the holiday break, and (c) we could start early and end before 8:00 pm -- because, as every RISK fan knows, you can't play a proper game in less than 5 hours.

So anyway, music nut that I am, I tend to plan ahead for any gathering's soundtrack, usually opting to play more obscure selections in my collection, avoiding the kind of day-in, day-out stuff I always listen to. Ever since the appearance of Eric Clapton's Unplugged CD in the early 1990s, however, I've never been able to tromp across Canada on the RISK board without humming "Alberta" to myself. I've wanted for years to assemble a "RISK soundtrack," and this year I finally did it. It started as a single-CD plan and quickly became a double, and it made its debut on 1/1/11. It was a little hard to appreciate all the nuances over the din of gameage, but I think it's a fun comp. Here's the tracklist:

Disc One / 26 Tracks / 77:16:40

01. RISK commercial 1980s (0:14) YouTube
02. I Will See You In Far Off Places (edit) (2:53) Morrissey
03. Fight Test (3:58) The Flaming Lips
04. Alphabet of Nations (1:20) They Might Be Giants
05. "Australia's the key to the whole game" (0:42) LOST, Season 4, Episode 9
06. Down Under (3:37) Men At Work
07. Australia (edit) (4:00) The Kinks
08. War On War (3:47) Wilco
09. We Can Work It Out (2:12) The Beatles
10. RISK on Seinfeld Part 1 (1:03) Jerry, Kramer, Newman
11. Old Siam, Sir (4:04) Paul McCartney
12. China Girl (4:10) David Bowie
13. Turning Japanese (3:42) The Vapors
14. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1 (4:46) The Flaming Lips
15. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 2 (2:53) The Flaming Lips
16. RISK on Seinfeld Part 4 (0:50) Kramer, Newman, Ukranian
17. Back In The USSR (LOVE) (2:38) The Beatles
18. You Can Call Me (Ural) (4:38) Paul Simon
19. Hunting Tigers Out In "Indiah" (3:02) The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
20. Rock The Casbah (3:36) The Clash
21. RISK on Seinfeld Part 2 (0:31) Jerry, Kramer, Newman
22. Africa (edit) (3:44) Toto
23. Walk Like An Egyptian (3:19) The Bangles
24. Foux Du Fafa (2:44) Flight Of The Conchords
25. Impossible Germany (DVD) (5:41) Wilco
26. You Have Killed Me (3:08) Morrissey

Disc Two / 25 Tracks / 71:15:08

01. RISK commercial 1990s (0:25) YouTube
02. English Tea (incomplete) (0:36) Paul McCartney
03. Anarchy In The U.K. (3:31) The Sex Pistols
04. I'll Fight (4:21) Wilco
05. RISK on Seinfeld Part 3 (0:41) Jerry, Kramer, Newman
06. South American (3:39) Brian Wilson
07. The Girl From Ipanema (2:53) Astrud Gilberto & The Stan Getz Quartet
08. Run Through The Jungle (2:59) Creedence Clearwater Revival
09. Mexican Radio (3:06) Wall Of Voodoo
10. Tug Of War (DVD mix) (3:58) Paul McCartney
11. Immigrant Song (2:21) Led Zeppelin
12. Tropical Ice-land (3:25) The Fiery Furnaces
13. Dear Old Greenland (3:25) Andrew Bird
14. War (3:18) Edwin Starr
15. Ontario (2:37) The Posies
16. Alberta (live) (3:34) Eric Clapton
17. Slaughter (4:17) Billy Preston
18. Northern Exposure (Theme) (0:45) David Schwartz
19. Anchorage (3:22) Michelle Shocked
20. I've Been Everywhere (3:15) Johnny Cash
21. America The Beautiful (2:57) Neil Young and 100 Voices
22. Handlebars (3:27) Flobots
23. We Are The Champions (3:02) Queen
24. Like A Soldier (Alternate) (2:55) Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson
25. Going Home (1918) (2:26) Randy Newman

A Few Notes...

I wanted my RISK soundtrack to be eclectic, fast-paced (mostly), and FUN. No politics, and, as this isn't a Social Studies lesson, I wasn't interested in "authentic" songs from any region -- hence "Hunting Tigers" by the Bonzo Dog Band, "Turning Japanese," "Mexican Radio," etc. To sequence the CDs, I basically collected as many region-specific songs as I could and arranged them as a tour across the RISK map, starting in Australia, traveling through Asia, Africa, and Europe, and then performing a "Malachi Crunch" of the United States between Iceland/Greenland/Canada and South & Central America.

Interspersed with these songs were songs that referred to war, conflict, and defeat or triumph. I also used sound-bites from the two most prominent appearances by RISK on television that I'm aware of, LOST and Seinfeld. The "war" songs are also specifically placed; for example, "We Can Work It Out" reflects the optimism of the early stages of the game, when people make alliances and try to shore up their positions, while "You Have Killed Me" represents the first player eliminated from the game and "Slaughter" is what happens at the end when people start turning in sets of cards for massive numbers of armies.

As with any good compilation, I've been turned on to some new music, and been reinvigorated towards some old music. I knew "Mexican Radio" and "Turning Japanese" from hours of MTV watching in the 1980s, but never would have purchased them if not for this comp. I'd never heard the Andrew Bird or Fiery Furnaces songs, but they were too perfect NOT to use. "Down Under" reminded me that Men At Work were pretty damn cool, and "Alphabet of Nations" was a post-New Year's addition suggested by my sister, whose daughter listens to They Might Be Giants' kiddie albums.

When I was working on this -- in a continuous marathon session from 5:00 pm Friday night until 10 am Saturday morning -- I searched the interwebs for other examples of RISK playlists, certain that others had preceded me. I figured I might find a song or two that I had overlooked, but I was shocked to not find a single mention of anyone listing RISK-themed music. So if you stumble upon this, and you love RISK and music, check it out. All of these songs are available on iTunes or Amazon. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

As always, on the cutting edge of human interaction...

I'm always saying to myself, "I could write a book about that." I think this about a frightening number of topics, but the truth is, I haven't and probably never will. I still have thoughts and opinions on things, though, and I love to write. When I have a spare hour or three I will spout off on a forum or a comments section if something riles me up, but I'm frustrated by the fleeting nature of the exercise.

I've decided on this New Year's Day, 1/1/11, to accept that even if I never write any of those books about all the topics that fascinate, puzzle or annoy me -- all the parts of my sum -- I can at least establish a place of my own to write about them. I don't care if I'm the only one who ever reads this blog; just knowing that I am at the forefront of this little-known communication tool is satisfaction enough.

Now, about those "chat rooms" I've been hearing about....